Sunday 13 October 2019

Foreigners and exiles

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan churches on Sunday 13th October, the 17th after Trinity.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’
These words from Shakespeare’s As You Like It came to my mind when I first read today’s NT reading (Luke 17:11-19).

Luke tells us that Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to show his gratitude. ‘Were not ten made clean?’, says Jesus, ‘But the other nine, where are they?’

I fear I’m more like the nine ungrateful than the tenth grateful one – and I dare say you are too. How many of us do not owe an immense debt to someone else? Perhaps to a friend, a teacher, a doctor, who has done something for us that we could not possibly repay. Or to our parents - a week’s neglect on their part would have killed us when we were new born. Yet how often do we forget to express our gratitude, how often do we not even bother to say thank you?

And we are often ungrateful to God as well. He has blessed us with so much. He has given us a wonderful world so perfectly made to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter and beauty. He has given us the capacity to form deep loving relationships as parents and children, as friends and lovers. And God has even given us his only Son to show us the way to his kingdom, the way of self-sacrifice which leads through the cross.

When times are bad we may pray to God with desparate intensity, but when times are good we are inclined to forget to be grateful. At Holy Communion we recite automatically the words ‘Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us’, but how many of us ever offer even a silent grace before meals, I wonder?

Jesus saw that the one who came back was a Samaritan. ‘Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’, he says.

As an ethnic group the Samaritans were heretics - they did not behave, or believe, or worship as the Jews did – they were ritually unclean. They were disliked and despised by their Jewish neighbours – somewhat as some Irish people dislike and despise immigrants or travellers today.

But Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson by drawing their attention to this particular outsider, who was the only one to turn back, the only one to praise God for his healing and the only one to thank Jesus. And Jesus publicly blessed him, saying, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’.

Jesus is never dismissive of people who are different in race, culture or faith, and as Christians we should not be either. We are enriched by the diverse people who are our neighbours, and Jesus commands us to love them as ourselves.

Jeremiah (29:1, 4-7) gives the exiles in Babylon some good advice in today’s OT reading.
Get on with your lives - build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, marry and have children. But also, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Others at the time were stirring up the Jewish people to rebel against the Babylonians. But history shows that Jeremiah was wise. It seems the Jews did as he advised, they prospered in Babylon and retained their identity, so that some 70 years later, after Babylon in turn had been overthrown by the Persians, their descendents were able to return to Jerusalem and restore the Temple.

It is good advice for migrants everywhere. It is good advice for the New Irish who have made our country their home. And it is good advice for the many Irish emigrants overseas. If we love them, let us pray that they may build good lives in their new communities and work for them to flourish, because if their new communities flourish, so will they.

But what of those of us who remain at home?
The news media are consumed with Brexit at the moment - for good reason - but it is the carefully phrased reports from scientists which should be of most concern to us. It is clear that human actions are seriously damaging the web of life on this beautiful planet God has placed us on.

The linked emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss will force lifestyle changes on us all very soon. We do not yet see clearly what those changes will be, nor how we must adapt to new conditions. But we can be sure the future cannot be one of ever-growing material prosperity as we have been conditioned to expect. We have grown up in a world where endless economic growth and increasingly wasteful consumption seems natural. As the limits to growth become more and more apparent, we will start to feel like exiles in our own country. We will have to find ways to live good and happy lives with less.

Jeremiah’s advice is good for us as well:
  • Get on with your lives, he says. We must not look back at what we feel we are losing, but instead look forward.
  • Build houses and live in them, Jeremiah says. It is shameful that as a society we allow so many to be homeless, and it is shameful that policies of austerity ruin the lives of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, even as the rich grow richer and the crisis intensifies. We need to build a better, more equal and resilient society. Together as communities we need to build our capacity to cherish all our neighbours, and to love them as we love ourselves.
  • Plant gardens and eat what they produce, Jeremiah says. We are blessed with bountiful renewable resources: our land and seas to feed us, energy from wind, ocean and geothermal heat, skilled people and vibrant culture. Let us use them productively – they are the gardens that will feed us.
  • Marry and have children, Jeremiah says. Ordinary human life will continue – let us use our capacity for deep loving relationships as parents, children, friends and lovers, to support and care for one another.
  • But also, says Jeremiah, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare. Let us strive to protect our God-given planet and build a just and sustainable society for the future, because only in such a society can we all flourish.
And let us behave like the grateful Samaritan and remember to turn back, praising God, and giving thanks for all he has given us.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
O God,
you have made heaven and earth and all that is good:
help us to delight in simple things
and to rejoice always in the richness of your bounty;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.